Day 23, 500 words, 31 days.

Yesterday was my first full day back in Penang. I was absolutely exhausted from the long work days and the brutal red-eye flights to and from India. Not to mention the whole fiasco about our luggage, which sapped whatever remaining energy I might have had in reserve. Needless to say, it was an absolute joy to crash on my own bed and have a legitimate excuse not to get up.

I had a few hours to re-charge before my next booking – and thank God it wasn’t for work at all. This was purely because I genuinely love storytelling, and not merely because I love teaching how to tell them.

Despite still feeling drained, my wife and I made it over to the Tropfest Film Festival, which boasts itself as the largest short film festival in the world. To our absolute delight, the entire event was free, which, like the Georgetown Literary Festival we attended a month earlier, made it precisely up our alley.

I knew things were off to a terrific start when a funky, pop-jazz fusion band from Indonesia (that’s the best way I could describe it) took the stage before the film screenings. The band also had a terrific name – White Shoes and the Couples Company. They had a look and sound that harkened back to the 50s and 60s, falling somewhere in between swinging jazz and surfer rock, and somehow it worked.

Shuli and I had lain out our straw mat on the open field like most in attendance. It had a bit of a Woodstock-feel to it, on a much, much smaller scale. It was such a relaxing way to return to Malaysia, striking that fine balance of seeking out that which was both familiar – which for us, was venturing to this part of town – and unknown – which was camping out for an outdoor film screening, without having any expectations as to how good the films actually were.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not that I had such low expectations – the 12 films they selected were all the finalists, after all. I won’t go into describing the films here. They were all unique stories, weaving in both universal themes like love, loss, and family, while involving hyper-local elements to their stories – the dialects spoken, ethnicities represented, and of course, the food. In their case – rice, especially. “Rice” had anchored the overarching theme for the film itself, and submitting filmmakers were tasked to incorporate rice, however loosely, into their story.

Fittingly, the film actually entitled “Rice”, by a first-time director named Sothea Ines from Cambodia took home the grand prize. She was completely shocked and overwhelmed. It was so refreshing watching her look so stunned at winning, almost as though she had completely written off her own chances until proven otherwise. She couldn’t help but share again and again how it was her first time doing a project like the one she submitted, not to reinforce how incredible her work was for a beginner, but with the sort of humility that comes with someone not yet ready for praise.

That was one of the lasting impressions I had from the festival – seeing Ms. Ines win. And “Rice” really was a terrific short, shot as a black and white, silent film featuring local, non-professional actors. The backdrop of the film was the era of the Khmer Rouge, but the story actually revolved around some village boys and stolen rice.

The other thing I felt incredibly proud about was that out of the 12 films submitted, three of them were either shot in the Philippines or directed by Filipino filmmakers. A little disclaimer here, I didn’t care much for whether any of the three won the entire festival. I was just glad they even made the cut. The three films were all dramatically different from one another, too – one explored the hilarious dynamic between a niece and and auntie, one was a glorified music video using rice as an instrument, and another, which I thought could have won, revolved around an old lady preparing for her own death.

I wanted the best storyteller to win, yes – but I’m excited to see Filipino filmmakers that are creative enough and brave enough to try and leave their mark in international cinema.

Especially in a country like Malaysia, wherein the stereotypical idea about Filipinos has everything to do with us being servants. There’s no shame in that life, and yet, it isn’t the only life Filipinos yearn for, either. We are a proud people, and intimately aware of adversity. The endurance of such hardship produces a multitude of stories that Filipinos the world over can attest to, and tell themselves. These are the stories that define us, far better than what the average employers might have been bargaining for. So I’m glad there was a platform like Tropfest for some of those to be seen and heard.

Finally, I left the festival as though my own creative energy had been replenished. After the week I had working in India, I was noticing that my own writing was beginning to suffer – not just in the regularity with which I was doing it, but in the quality and freshness of what I had to say. I could only muster up so much material from traveling to and from the airport.

I needed the reminder that the journey is really the reward for creative people. It’s well worth getting started, and just staying on. Many of the filmmakers were just, genuinely, happy to be there. After it was all said and done, all the filmmakers gathered around in the center of the stage, flanked the three prize winners, and started jumping up and down like they had all equally won.

Just seeing how singularly-focused and committed they were to their stories, and then flying in from different parts of the world and having their little films projected on a big screen in front of thousands of people, it’s safe to assume, that they all, in fact, were winners.